RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Soccer fields are everywhere in Rio de Janeiro. Whether professional-grade expanses of grass or improvised rectangles of dirt and rocks, they're found in high-rent neighborhoods and tucked into "favela" hillside slums of this chaotic city of 12 million people that is one of the World Cup host cities.
In the slums, soccer is not only a favorite pastime but is seen as a way of helping keep kids out of the clutches of drug gangs. City- or charity-run "escolinhas," or soccer schools, operate in nearly all of the slums, from the Dona Marta shantytown ensconced in the middle-class Botafogo neighborhood to Mangueira, a historic favela overlooking mythical Maracana Stadium, where six World Cup matches plus the final are to be held.
Between the kids' soccer schools and the adults who cap off their workdays with a "pelada," or informal match, competition for fields is stiff, particularly in the late afternoons and evenings.
In Aterro do Flamengo, a sprawling park near Sugarloaf Mountain, towering streetlights illuminate much disputed fields where matches take place all through the night and into the wee hours, often at 2, 3 or 4 a.m.
A proper field is a real luxury that most of Rio's soccer fanatics have to do without, playing anywhere they can find a sufficiently large, flat surface.
In the Pavaozinho slum, sandwiched between two of Brazil's most expensive neighborhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, barefoot kids take over the concrete of an irregularly shaped passageway. Similar scenes play out in the nearby Cantagalo slum, where boys hone their skills on a sliver of concrete in the shadow of Ipanema beach's iconic Dois Irmaos rock formation.
Beaches, mountains and soccer fields — that's Rio.